Wednesday, 24 February 2016

Some further thoughts on the art of apologetics

Stephen Bedard graciously responded to my previous post by making a number of very fair points. Here are a few quotes worth repeating (you'll find the full post here).
My statement about sheep is not a judgment about the intelligence of people in my congregation. We have doctors and lawyers in our congregation who are far smarter than I am. What I was saying is that the chosen image for ministers is that of pastor, which means a shepherd. The connection is that pastors have a group to care for just as shepherds do.
Why would people in our congregations need the pastor’s help if they are already well-read and educated? The fact is people specialize in certain fields. I am well educated but when I pastored a small country church and the people discussed farming, I was lost because that is not where my knowledge is. Education in one area does not mean the person is knowledgable in another.
My goal is for people in the congregation to read on these subjects for themselves, find where the resources are and be able to interpret statements in their proper context.
So how could you disagree with that?

'Pastor' is an interesting word, simply meaning shepherd. This morning I took my morning constitutional at the local reserve which happens to border on the sale yards. As I walked the shaded area beside the trees, the sheep on the other side became jittery. Sheep are not bold creatures. The gruff voice of a farmer, the yap of a dog, and they do what they're required to, quickly moving into another fenced area. Within hours they'll be at the abattoir. Shepherds were never intended to guard the long-term interests of their flocks. They're there to make sure that things are okay until the killing knife comes out.

You can only press the "good shepherd" metaphor so far.

The reality is, of course, that the people who sit in the pews are not sheep. A compliant "go ask the pastor" congregation is no credit to the minister. Stephen wants to play the "expert card". He's a specialist. How good a specialist can you be when you misrepresent someone like Bart Ehrman? Let's take an example. A parishioner approaches their pastor, disturbed by a popular article that quotes Ehrman. What to do? Demonize Ehrman, or suggest they actually read one of his books for themselves, find out what he's saying and see what they think, then invite them to come back and discuss it?

This whole "expert card" is a bit of a con, in my opinion. Most apologists (and I exclude Stephen simply because I don't know whether he does this himself) feel free to judge on a wide range of scientific and ethical issues which impinge on their paradigm. Astrophysics, paleontology. anthropology, genetics, intertextuality... the list goes on and on. Are the apologists experts in these fields? Do they, at least, give credence to the academic consensus?

As far as I can see, only when it suits them. They're all too often dilettantes with poorly formed views, which is why they get little respect from real experts.

What about expertise in genuinely related fields like biblical criticism? Same thing. When scholarship comes up, it's all too often a game of "pick a scholar": N. T. Wright? Yes. Tillich? No. Craig Evans? Yes. Bart Ehrman? No. The impressively full shelves in the pastor's study (and they should be impressively full!) are more often than not lined with imprints like IVP, Zondervan and Thomas Nelson. Like attracts like.

Nurturing Christian belief in the twenty-first century is a struggle. It's not a struggle because of any imagined secularist agenda or the wiles of Old Nick. It's a struggle because, in part, the pastors haven't been honest with their flocks, settling for playing apologetic games rather than honestly confronting the issues.

Have you ever met an open-minded apologist?


  1. It seems to me that the role of the apologist is to notice where a seam opens between the apparent facts and straight-as-a-barrel Sunday school Christianity, and explain away that seam to the satisfaction of any doubt-harbouring Christians. My experience (albeit limited in recent years) of the average pew-sitting Christian is that they rarely question anything they hear from the pulpit in any event.

  2. Apologetics are buzz-kills for truth seekers, but a palliative for those desperate to find just the right discredited academic ‘expert’.

    What ever happened to "we look for the truth and just accept it when we find it"?

    Apologists are excuse-makers for dogma gone wrong.